Religious Freedom in a Post-Pandemic World

Religious Freedom in a Post-Pandemic World

As FAV draws closer to the religious freedom panels beginning on Friday, let’s review the evolution of our perspectives on religious freedom over the last two years. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, First Amendment Voice examined how religious institutions adapted to social distancing measures and other coronavirus-related restrictions as lockdowns were implemented in hopes of slowing the spread of the contagious virus.

A couple months later, we considered whether the First Amendment protects in-person religious gatherings. This question made it all the way to the Supreme Court in the case of South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, in which the conservative majority ruled to block the state of California’s ban on in-person religious gatherings but left in-place the ban on singing and chanting during religious services. 

In September 2020 – about six months into what many of us thought would be a short-lived public health crisis – we sought more uplifting news by exploring compassionate expressions of religious freedom during the pandemic.

Now, in 2022, we’re interested in how far we as a nation have come in regards to the role of religion in society and our ongoing commitment to protecting key liberties both within the U.S. and internationally. While there will surely be many articles, books, podcasts and other media produced on the topic of religious freedom during and after Covid-19, today’s blog post will focus primarily on recent studies’ findings about religious liberty and expectations for the future.

Becket’s 2021 Religious Freedom Index

Becket, “a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths,” published its third annual Religious Freedom Index in November 2021. While we always encourage our readers to review primary sources for themselves to gain the most comprehensive perspective possible, some of the most fascinating findings from the Becket report included:

  • The question of whether religious organizations that provide services and resources to their communities ought to be eligible for government funding received the greatest increase in support from the report’s respondents (71% supported the idea, compared to 65% in 2020).
  • The percentage of people who reportedly “appreciate the contributions religion and people of faith make to our country and to society” rose from 47% in 2020 to 54% in 2021.
  • In regards to activities at houses of worship during the pandemic, 62% of respondents classified funerals as “essential,” 52% classified worship as “essential,” and 43% classified weddings as “essential.”

For more information about the latest survey findings, be sure to check out the full Becket report linked above.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2021 Report

The 100+ page 2021 Annual Report from the USCIRF examined religious freedom violations and improvements on more of a global scale. Some of the most notable findings from the 2021 report included:

  • USCIRF recommended that the U.S. State Department should designate four additional countries as “countries of particular concern” (also referred to as “CPCs,” in which “the government engages in or tolerates ‘particularly severe’ violations of religious freedom”). Ten countries already on the CPC list include: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The four additional countries recommended for CPC designation in 2021 were India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.
  • Although religious freedom remains a concern in these countries, the USCIRF did not recommend that Bahrain, the Central African Republic, and Sudan be added to the Special Watch List (SWL) for 2021. 
  • In a June 2021 webinar with the Council on Foreign Relations, USCIRF’s Director of Outreach and Policy Dwight Bashir highlighted ever-growing concerns with China’s potential and actual harmful actions against minority religious groups, particularly the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity perpetuated against Uighurs in the Xinjiang region of China. 

Additional Resources on Religious Freedom in 2022 and Beyond

For more information about the state of religious freedom in the U.S. and abroad, the article, “COVID-19 and Religious Freedom: Some Comparative Perspectives” published in the open-access journal Laws in May 2021 offers in-depth analyses on the complicated relationship between governments and religious institutions during the pandemic. 

Additionally, First Amendment Voice has some programming on religious freedom coming soon.

    • This panel discussion will explore the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the concept of religious freedom as a framework for healing divides. The panel discussion will intentionally feature the voices of young emerging faith leaders at the intersection of racial equity, religious freedom, and public justice. This session will explore how innovative approaches to reframing religious freedom can address the ways in which the legal and cultural narratives in the U.S have largely privileged white Christians over others. The experiences of religious minorities and BIPOC communities have been largely excluded, leading to an incomplete and even harmful understanding of what religious freedom actually is or has the potential to be. This session will probe how to reimagine religious freedom’s interconnectedness with racial equity and its relevance for shared flourishing.
    • Too many people around the world are persecuted for their religion or belief. While statistics, when they are available, document this persecution, people can argue over what they mean and they can numb us into believing that events are beyond our control. In the divisive time in which we now live, advocating in support of religious prisoners of conscience, especially women and girls who suffer the often-devastating consequences of unjust and discriminatory laws and/or practices helps generate action and change, and brings people together as they work for their freedom.

This panel will focus on international religious freedom, the complex persecution women and girls face for their religious beliefs, and efforts that can be taken, individually and in community, to advocate on their behalf.

    • Freedom of religion is a constitutionally guaranteed right, established in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. This guaranteed and protected right is being challenged and systematically stripped away through litigation at both State and Federal levels. Religious freedom is more than practicing one’s belief in the privacy of their home or house of worship. The duty of practicing one’s faith or no faith at all, is not something granted by the government, and therefore, not something permissibly taken by it, either. Rather, it is a freedom attached to our humanity. It is a right meant not merely to permit religious worship, but for it to be exercised. It is a liberty not only to hold one’s convictions and conscience, but to speak about them publicly and to live them out freely. This panel will discuss the current state of religious liberty across our nation, the challenges, and the opportunities to ensure the constitutional right of every citizen to live their faith in the public square.
Research-Backed Benefits of Volunteering

Research-Backed Benefits of Volunteering

Most of us know that volunteering is essential for meaningful participation in civic life, but did you also know that there are several benefits of volunteering for those who get involved in community service? With the 2022 Edward D. Lowry Memorial Award for Citizenship nominations opening soon at First Amendment Voice, this post will celebrate the rewards of volunteerism and hopefully inspire more folks to get involved in their communities this year.


Who Volunteers?

First things first: have you ever wondered which groups are most likely to participate in volunteer opportunities in the United States? This fascinating report published by AmeriCorps found that the five states with the highest volunteer rates per capita include Utah (#1), Minnesota, Oregon, Iowa and Alaska. The same report found the cities with the highest volunteer rates in the U.S. include Minneapolis (MN – #1), Rochester (NY), Salt Lake City (UT), Milwaukee (WI), and Portland (OR).

Another AmeriCorps report on volunteer demographics found that over 32 million men and 44 million women collectively contribute over 6.9 billion hours of volunteer service. Breaking it down by gender, approximately 26.5% of American men and 33.8% of American women are engaged in volunteering efforts, which included performing tasks for one’s neighborhood, participating in local organizations, and/or donating to charity.


Perceived Benefits for Older Adults

A 2009 peer-reviewed study published in The Gerontologist found that a majority of volunteers reportedly felt better off as a result of their community service. One-fifth of the survey respondents said their health had improved after getting involved in volunteerism, more than half of respondents said their volunteer efforts also benefited their family and friends, and most respondents said they felt more aware of social and generational issues impacting their communities as a result of volunteering.

In another study published in The Gerontologist in 2021, researchers found that older adults who volunteer 100 or more hours per year tend to experience more positive self-perceptions of aging and, subsequently, fewer depressive symptoms.


Benefits of Youth Volunteerism

A 2017 study published in the journal Social Science Research found that encouraging volunteerism and civic engagement among youth may lead to multiple positive outcomes, including a greater likelihood of kids getting involved in volunteering later as adults, greater psychological well-being (for those who voluntarily participate in service opportunities), and a correlation between youth volunteering and both years of schooling and income.


Stress-Reduction Benefits for Those Who Care About Other People

An April 2013 study published in Health Psychology found that, for people who hold positive views towards others, getting involved in volunteering can reduce life stress and mortality rates. The second part of the study similarly found that volunteerism was associated with fewer stressful life events and reduced psychological stress among those with high world benevolence beliefs (in other words, they tend to believe other people are more good than bad).


Lowry Award for Citizenship recognizes Outstanding Volunteers

The Edward D. Lowry Memorial Award for Citizenship recognizes the work of nonpartisan volunteers bridging divisions within their communities to promote the public good. Get ready to learn more about the positive work going on in countless communities across the country as FAV lifts up amazing community leaders and civic entrepreneurs who exemplify the following qualities.


• Relentless service to others

• Able to work across ideological differences for the common good

• Fearless advocate of the First Amendment principles

• Overcomes setbacks; strives on in the face of adversity

• Exhibits strategic thinking but able to translate that into results

• Inspirational: encourages others to give of time, talent or resources

• Consummate networking to connect organizations & people for community impact

Nominations are due by March 1st to [email protected] with email title “2022 FAV Lowry Award Nomination” You can also submit a nomination using the form linked on our home page. Learn more about the Lowry Award on our YouTube page!

‘Cancel Culture’ and the First Amendment

‘Cancel Culture’ and the First Amendment

As the Freedom Forum Institute points out, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech but not without some key exceptions, such as obscenity, defamation, blackmail, and perjury. With this in mind, it would be reasonable to view cancel culture as a multifaceted issue that cannot be clearly divided into two categories of “always good” or “always bad.” The issue is that sweeping generalizations in favor or against cancel culture – often in the form of brief, emotionally charged social media posts or polarizing rants from news commentators – tend to distort what could have been constructive conversations about what someone did, why it might be interpreted as offensive, and how common ground may be achieved. 

To better understand what cancel culture is, why it has become such a prominent issue in the U.S. and what the potential/actual consequences are, let’s explore how this controversial concept is typically understood by others and how it relates to the First Amendment. 

What is Cancel Culture?

Similar to other hyper-politicized phrases like “fake news” or even “essential workers,” there is no clear definition of what exactly “cancel culture” refers to. There are countless articles analyzing what it is, how people leverage the term in social media discourses to silence dissent or demand accountability, and what the positive/negative implications of cancel culture may be, but as of 2021, we have yet to come to a common understanding of what cancel culture means and whether it’s more of a beneficial or harmful thing for free speech. 

In one such article arguing that cancel culture does not actually exist, The New Statesman describes cancel culture as “a mob mentality, a series of mass movements seeking to end the careers of public figures whose thoughts or opinions deviate from a new set of left-wing norms.” 

If there’s not a readily agreed-upon definition of “cancel culture,” what influences different individuals’ and groups’ understanding of the term?

An in-depth study from the Pew Research Center in 2021 found that roughly 44% of the American population has heard of “cancel culture” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, individuals’ interpretations of cancel culture varied by political affiliation as indicated in this graph:

Pew Research Center bears no responsibility for the analyses or interpretations of the data presented here. The opinions expressed herein, including any implications for policy, are those of the author and not of Pew Research Center.

The aforementioned Pew Research study is well worth dedicating some time to read through yourself. It quotes several different perspectives on cancel culture and analyzes the most common rationales of those who believe cancel culture unjustly punishes people (e.g., context considerations, people are overreacting, “offensive” is a subjective concept) and those who believe cancel culture is important for holding others accountable (e.g., people should be more mindful of the consequences of what they say and social problems like racism, sexism and homophobia are brought to light).

To recap what we’ve covered so far: there’s no singular definition of “cancel culture,” and there’s little agreement among even politically-similar individuals/groups as to whether cancel culture poses more advantages or disadvantages, though it’s generally agreed that it poses some implications for freedom of speech.

Cancel Culture: Online and Offline Consequences

The aforementioned article from The New Statesmen pointed out how in spite of public hysteria surrounding cancel culture, it “rarely has real-world consequences: instead, it might result in names trending, take-down threads, and more replies to a tweet than likes.”

When former President Trump was banned from Facebook and Twitter in January 2021, the Internet was in an uproar over whether such actions were part of a larger cancel culture movement or simply another instance of non-governmental entities (in this case, publicly-traded corporations) denying access to their platforms to those in violation of their terms of service. Ten months later in October, the former president launched his own social media platform called TRUTH Social, which presented some interesting implications for current discourses about cancel culture.

On the one hand, getting “cancelled” (banned from traditional social media platforms, in the case of former President Trump) makes it more challenging for these individuals to maintain the same level of public visibility as they enjoyed previously. On the other hand, the trend of well-known “cancelled” people making successful comebacks into public life suggests the consequences are not nearly as dire or permanent as the fear appeals embedded in anti-cancel culture rhetoric make them seem. 

Concerns over the potential consequences of cancel culture aren’t limited to social media, of course. At the 2020 Republican National Convention, one delegate resolution explicitly cited cancel culture as a threat to First Amendment freedoms, stating that it has “​​grown into erasing of history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens, and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech.” 

In February 2021, a state senator in California introduced two bills that would prevent employers, landlords, banks, and educational institutions from discriminating against individuals on the basis of political ideology. Melissa Melendez, a Republican, described her proposal as an effort to combat “cancel culture and the efforts to silence differing opinions and voices.” The senator did not provide examples or data to support the common claim that people have been denied goods or services on the basis of their political affiliations or beliefs, but perceptions of cancel culture remain potent in American political discourse nonetheless.

But what about everyday individuals without the wealth or name recognition that people like former President Trump, Dave Chappelle, Louis CK, Gina Carano, Roseanne Barr (to name a few) have? 

There’s a case to be made for individuals who may be unjustifiably “cancelled” by mob mentalities that sometimes run rampant on social media. What if someone said something deemed offensive without realizing it may be interpreted as such? What if they meant no harm and genuinely apologized after reflecting on how their words may be deeply hurtful to others? Who decides what type of cancellation is appropriate for certain words or actions, assuming cancellation is a justifiable response at all?

These are some of the many difficult questions we must consider when thinking and talking about cancel culture. On social media, debates over cancel culture are frequently laced with anger-laden words and phrases and cherry-picked examples to support “their side” of the issue, but these discussions rarely make room for thoughtful deliberation or genuine attempts to listen to alternative viewpoints. 

Social media and freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment permit us to openly publish our thoughts and feelings to global audiences on a 24/7 basis. If a queer liberal activist spends hours on Twitter denouncing Dave Chappelle for being pro-TERF (“trans-exclusionary radical feminism”) in his latest standup special, then they are free to do so. On the flip side, if a conservative Californian wants to spend hours on Facebook venting about Governor Newsom, then they are also free to do so. 

It would be a false equivalence to say that critiquing someone – especially if they’re a public figure with influence over millions of people – is the same thing as “cancelling” them (and, as mentioned previously, cancelling typically doesn’t lead to significant consequences anyway; Dave Chappelle is actively touring with large, sold-out shows and the recall effort against Governor Newsom was unsuccessful). 

However, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we always should. It ultimately comes down to a question of what you deem a worthy use of your time: posting and consuming rage-filled content that reinforces destructive “us” versus “them” divides? Or perhaps it would be a better use of time and emotional energy to pause when we encounter emotionally-charged content online and thoughtfully consider the consequences of engaging with or sharing such content. 

Individuals alone don’t have enough power to combat divisions in our country, especially when it involves a vague, undefinable yet influential phenomenon like cancel culture. However, by being willing to listen to others’ perspectives, recognizing which of the infinite social media battles are worthy of your time, and using your First Amendment-given right to speak freely in ways that heal rather than divide, we can collectively reach a point where the only thing to be cancelled is cancel culture itself. 

“Americans and ‘Cancel Culture’: Where Some See Calls for Accountability, Others See Censorship, Punishment.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 19, 2021)

Everyday Inspirations: Lessons Inspired by Edward D. Lowry

Everyday Inspirations: Lessons Inspired by Edward D. Lowry

As we gear up for our inaugural Edward D. Lowry Award Ceremony on May 21st, we’d like to take the time to reflect on the many civic-minded qualities embodied by the award’s namesake and invite you to consider how you can integrate these principles into your own life.

In addition to overcoming adversity, Ed Lowry was well-known for his tireless dedication to serving others in his community. He was a tremendous source of inspiration for countless people throughout his life, and we can continue his legacy of community service by striving to engage in everyday acts of inspiring courage, service and advocacy.

Encouraging Volunteerism

Ed Lowry was a committed volunteer who consistently went above-and-beyond what anyone could’ve expected from just one person. Ed didn’t simply volunteer for organizations he was personally passionate about; he leveraged his voice and expertise to inspire others to get involved in volunteering as well.

As we gradually move towards some semblance of “normal” in 2021, ask yourself how you can get more involved in supporting community organizations through volunteer opportunities. Maybe you already volunteer once per month for one-day/weekend events such as local park or beach clean-ups, healthcare clinics, food pantry or soup kitchen preparations, exercising dogs for the local animal shelter, collecting supplies for low-income folks, or any of these virtual volunteering opportunities. Do you reach out to others and encourage them to get involved too?

Volunteering doesn’t have to be exclusively performed through an organization, of course. Helping neighbors with groceries, driving seniors to medical appointments or offering to babysit for a busy parent are some of the many ways in which a small action on your part can make a big difference in the lives of others.

Fundraising for Worthy Causes

If your schedule is packed or you have ongoing concerns about Covid-19, there are ways to help others in your community even if you’re not involved in hands-on volunteer efforts. By spreading the word about donation drives and other fundraisers on social media, email or video calls with family and friends, you could create a ripple effect for fundraising initiatives that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t shared this information with others in the first place.

For more information on supporting donation drives, GoFundMe published this great list of 25 fundraiser sharing strategies to help you get more creative in your efforts to raise money for organizations and causes you care most about.

Engaging in Civic Advocacy

As a strategic advisor for First Amendment Voice, Ed Lowry was well-known for inspiring others to become more civically engaged in their communities.

Ways to get involved in civic advocacy include:

At FAV we know that you are probably doing many of these things already. Keep up the great work, just like Ed did his entire life, and you will enjoy the satisfaction that comes from serving with purpose and meaning.

Our Opportunity to Move Forward Together

Our Opportunity to Move Forward Together

By Councilmember Chris Duncan

Reprinted with permission from Chris Duncan. This article originally was printed in San Clemente Times, (March 4, 2021).

Our natural instinct in these times is to find like-minded souls to take us in, assuage our self-doubt, and tell us the “other side” is the source of our inner turmoil.

In coffee meetings, YouTube chats, and Facebook groups, the urge is strong to sort ourselves into competing factions, all bent on protecting “us” from “them” by denigrating those who see things differently.

Fear and frustration manifest as grievance against a mythical “they” who have gained from our side’s loss. Like a drowning swimmer off Lost Winds, we pull each other under to save ourselves.

This animosity, while comforting in the short run, is not the answer. We San Clemente residents will not, and should not, agree on everything. Vigorous debate results in a better functioning democracy, because the best ideas will withstand the toughest scrutiny.

But while we may disagree with our fellow citizens on the issues, we must not assign them evil intent. That is easier said than done, especially right now. National news outlets and social media companies, which profit off our divisions, tell us the stories we want to hear, not those we need to hear, and relentlessly demonize the “opposition.”

Your neighbor is not your enemy, but it is easy to believe he or she is. I know, because I am as susceptible to making rash personal judgments as the next person. It feels soothing for an instant to vilify someone who thinks differently, or worse, label them a bad person. But personal attacks only make us feel more bitter and alone, and in the long run, corrode our public discourse.

 It doesn’t have to be this way. Each of us is responsible for changing the narrative. Our future generations are counting on us to make decisions today that will enhance our city’s prospects, not drive a wedge through it.

If we acknowledge that our own insecurities are often the source of our unease, we can avoid trying to find faults in others to make ourselves feel better. Through this acceptance, we can lift the invisible walls that separate us and come together to achieve the goals we share.

I believe we are in a unique position to make this happen. As tragic as COVID-19 has been, it has forced us to unify around beneficial practices we previously overlooked, like dining outdoors, enjoying our beautiful environment, and being more present for our kids.

As we emerge together from the pandemic, having defeated the virus and preserved our way of life through our collective diligence and mutual goodwill, we have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage this unity to tackle other challenges that seemed out of reach.

Stopping the toll road, saving our beaches, ending homelessness in town. These are all possible if we direct our energy toward solving the problem instead of endlessly critiquing fellow problem-solvers.

But this opportunity is fleeting. If we do not act now, it will pass us by. And a year from now, when things are back to normal, we may forget what is possible if we act in unison.

San Clemente is an extraordinary town, but I am convinced our best days are ahead of us. It is up to each and every one of us, including the five us on the city council, to release the baggage of contempt and blame, appeal to the better angels of our nature, and replace character smears with substantive, fact-driven discussion. Only then will our Spanish Village reach its full potential.

Chris Duncan is a San Clemente city councilmember who was elected in 2020.

Lessons on overcoming adversity after one year of the pandemic

Lessons on overcoming adversity after one year of the pandemic

One of the qualities encapsulated in First Amendment Voice’s Ed Lowry Memorial Award for Citizenship is a person’s ability to overcome setbacks and strive on in the face of adversity. Many of us are no strangers to adversity, especially after one of the most challenging years in recent public memory.

Rather than dwelling on the negative events that happened in 2020 and continued into 2021, we’d like to take this as an opportunity to meaningfully reflect on what adversity is and what we can do to change the ways in which we view and overcome adversity.

What is Adversity?

Adversity is generally described as serious and/or ongoing difficulties and misfortune. It can involve anything from physical, mental or emotional struggles of an individual to the social, legal or economic setbacks experienced by a wider group. Most people face some kind of adversity at many points in their lives, but the extent of the problem and the individual or group’s capacity to remain resilient in the face of adversity varies widely.

Pause for a moment to reflect on how adversity has appeared in your own life over the past year. What challenges have you faced, and how did you successfully overcome them? Which personality traits do you credit for your ability and willingness to strive onward in spite of the obstacles in your way? And if some of these adverse circumstances are still ongoing, what can you do today to resolve them?

Of course, not all types of adversity are resolvable through sheer determination by an individual. While the U.S. has long-embraced the cultural value of personal responsibility and ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,’ it’s important to remember that adversity is often caused by factors outside of our control (such as the pandemic and all the related consequences it has brought with it).

With this in mind, we should renew our focus on being empathetic towards others because we never know what someone might be going through behind the scenes. We can’t control others’ responses to conflict and adversity, but we can compassionately support them and find commonalities in our unique, yet similar struggles.

Reframing Adversity as Opportunity

As former First Lady Michelle Obama said in a college commencement speech in 2016: “You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.”

As we discuss in-depth in our FAV-exclusive white paper, some of the best strategies for adjusting our expectations to upsetting or challenging situations involve self-distancing and cognitive reframing. In a nutshell, these techniques involve consciously viewing adverse situations as opportunities for growth and actively identifying which factors are within our control to drive positive changes in our lives.

For example, someone who is laid off could reframe job loss as an opportunity to find more meaningful employment elsewhere, perhaps with a more agreeable boss, better benefits, and greater job satisfaction. We’re not suggesting that you should only look at the bright side when confronted with adversity; it’s a natural human response to feel anxious, disappointed or angry when presented with a seemingly impossible obstacle to overcome. However, you also can’t let yourself get too caught up in the negativity if you genuinely hope to overcome adversity, so reframing how you think about a problem – as an opportunity rather than a disadvantage – is essential for overcoming setbacks in any area of your life.